I mentioned this in one of my posts for “Book of Circus”, but I’m always impressed by how immersive Kuroshitsuji is. We throw around the term “world-building” a lot when discussing anime, but this series is a shining example of how to do it right, from the manga on-up. In all of the anime that’a actually based on Toboso Yana’s work (which includes everything but the second season and some of its BD/DVD extra material) I always find myself completely taken in by the atmosphere Kuroshitsuji creates, to the point of utter absorption. It’s too easy to dismiss Toboso’s work because it’s so shameless with the puffery and stylistically grandiose, but underneath all that powder makeup is something of a minor modern classic.
“Book of Murder” is, thankfully, fully derived from the manga’s Phantomhive Manor Murders arc. It’s a classic setting for a Kuroshitsuji tale – a bunch of invited guests trapped in a country manor during a torrential rainstorm, as they begin mysteriously to die, one by one. Why, it’s like something from a Sherlock Holmes novel – which is why it’s so fitting that one of the characters is none other than Arthur Conan Doyle (Asanuma Shintaro). When the Queen orders (via her mouthpieces “Double Charles” Phipps and Grey) Ciel to throw a party for a German cousin, Siemens (Nogawa Masashi) Ciel invites a range of oddballs – Lao and Ran-mao, a theatre director and his older diva girlfriend, an industrialist or two. But Arthur – at this point an unsuccessful writer and oculist – has no idea why he’s been asked to such a swanky event.
Turns out Ciel is a fan, having read “A Study in Scarlet” in a magazine far too common for it to have been proper for a young lord in his position to read it. As always with Kuroshitsuji there’s stuff going on behind the scenes, some of which we know and some of which we don’t – for starters, Ciel has (quite rightly, it must be said) raised the Queen’s suspicions with the way he “resolved” the Noah’s Ark abduction case, and this party seems to be an opportunity to win her favor back. But he suspects there’s a secret, hidden meaning behind the Queen’s request – and Charles Grey is on-hand to be the Queen’s eyes and ears for the duration of the party.
When the guests (beginning with the loutish Siemens) start dying, things really begin to follow the classic murder mystery template – locked room mysteries, lists of alibis, mysterious vampiric bite marks – which makes it a happy “coincidence” that Arthur is on-hand. Ciel is initially cast under suspicion as the only one who doesn’t have a clean alibi when Siemens is killed – which leads to him spending an awkward, hilarious and even somewhat touching night chained to Arthur (Ciel can’t sleep till he has his special pillow). However, Sebastian is the next one to turn up dead, after a strange late-night visit to Bard and Finny and Mey-rin confirms he was alive at 2:50 AM – which of course, clears Ciel of suspicion in his killing (rather convenient, it must be said). The third victim, Patrick Phelps (Watanabe Takumi) turns out to be the second, as the shipping magnate’s killer helpfully breaks the clock in his (actually Ciel’s) room – which happens to have stopped working exactly 12 minutes before Sebastian was last seen alive.
The mystery here is a fun one, because it works on multiple levels – we have the Doyle-like conventional murder puzzle, and then the matter of why this entire evening is happening in the first place Why did Ciel and Sebastian start speaking French, and what was in the message Sebastian had Mey-rin send by (ill-fated) Owl Express? And who is the mysterious Reverend Jeremy who shows up at the manor, with a strangely familiar voice? But I think the best part of the story is the atmosphere. For all the grimness of the subject matter this is actually a somewhat less weighty tale than “Book of Circus” and easier to enjoy in its own right. And all of the characters are in their full glory here – we get to see Ciel’s acting chops (and as usual, a lot else, too – Toboso makes sure). Tanaka steps up into the head butler role with flair and GAR. The loyalty of the three servants is on full display, with Bard stepping up as a leader in a way we’ve rarely seen him do. Sebastian’s cat fetish reveals itself in unlikely fashion. And there’s no Grell anywhere in sight!
This is all canon material, but it works very well in OVA format – it’s well-suited to being a stand-alone story. “Book of Murder” really plays as an indulgence for fans of Kuroshitsuji – if you enjoy this setting and these characters, they’re on display here in all their glory. It seems like a story that would have been a lot of fun for Toboso-sensei to write – serious and important for the recurring plot, but mostly entertaining and fun for its own sake. I always enjoy Kuroshitsuji when Toboso is in that mode, and “Book of Murder” is no exception.